Patrick Mueller’s Control Group Productions dance theater is known for putting on immersive, outside-the-box productions staged in unlikely locations and under unexpected circumstances, including vignette-laden hikes through the urban jungle and dances performed in the dark, outdoors or even in an abandoned slaughterhouse. Mueller was “immersive” long before the word emerged as the next big thing in arts.
Now Control Group is trying something new, a venture that might be even be considered commercial: For Cutting Room Floor, a Halloween-themed collaboration with the Aurora Fox Arts Center, Mueller had to come up with something that would be accessible to the Fox’s audience and somehow share some of the theater’s history.
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The collaboration got started when Fox executive director Helen Murray dropped in on Control Group’s walk-about production Watching Night Falling at Stanley Marketplace and liked what she saw. “When we were invited by the Fox, we took a step forward from where we were in terms of growth,” Mueller notes. Control Group had found an enticing entryway toward new audiences.
“I feel like it's happening more and more, beyond that circle of friends of friends, people in the know,” Muller adds. “We’re growing a general public instead of a contemporary-dance public.” But that also meant providing easier access points into the work for wider audiences.
“I don't know how much of crowd-pleaser it is,” Mueller admits. “But it’s quirky and light compared to our usual fare. It has a lot of pop-culture content, with our weird twist on that, and there’s a ridiculous amount of content: conspiracy theories, real history, made-up stuff, military, aliens, ghosts….”
Keeping it all in line was perhaps Mueller’s greatest challenge.
For one thing, Control Group recently formed a control group of its own: Mueller gave up solo leadership, diversifying with a hive-mind of four collaborators. As a result, “the work is becoming richer, because it’s not mostly coming out of my brain,” he happily acknowledges. Freeing up Mueller’s brain space are marketing director Bailey Harper, escape-room whiz Christine Woods and right-hand man and sound designer/composer Nicholas Caputo, who are all also performers in the company.
Together, they’ve woven a new, more sophisticated take on the haunted-house experience that Mueller calls a “not-haunted house,” or an “avant haunt.” Explains Mueller: “It’s still spooky and eerie, but without doing the jump-fright Freddy mask thing. It’s Halloween-y without being extreme, an experiment that turns out gentle and super strange.”
And the performers aren't afraid to make fun of themselves and their own pretensions. “There’s a wonderfully strong-headed director character who — with great joy and fear — I created based on myself,” Mueller admits.
Cutting Room Floor begins with the old “play-within-a-play” tactic, with rehearsing actors, a dressing room
and a green room, before turning completely wacky. “We turn the Fox’s black box into a mental deep storage area with ideas that have never seen light of day," Mueller explains. "The whole show is about ghosts and things that haunt us — regret, nostalgia and the history of Colfax and Aurora."
In particular, the history of the Fox itself, which began as a movie palace in a Quonset hut in 1946. The theater already comes with its own built-in ghost stories, and Control Group mined its mid-century life for pop-culture fodder; its proximity to military audiences from Fitzsimons Army Hospital and Lowry Air Force Base also provided material.
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So, how scary is Cutting Room Floor?
“It will maybe have you looking over your shoulder. There’s enough of a surreal dreamscape, but it bleeds back out into reality,” Mueller says. “We couldn’t hold back, and hope it’s taken in that spirit. And it’s not even all that demeaning toward the art form we practice with passion. It’s goofy, spoofy and campy at same time. We’re waiting with bated breath to put the general public in front of it, and to see what they take away from it.”
Cutting Room Floor opens Thursday, October 17, and runs for seventeen performances, through Wednesday, October 30, at the Aurora Fox, 9900 East Colfax Avenue in Aurora; tickets are $24 to $32 (with $15 to $20 previews on October 17 and 18) at aurorafoxartscenter.org. Learn more about Control Group online.